Badass Scientists, part 2: Corrie Moreau

Ants are everywhere in the small office. They march on shelves with tiny plastic legs, up arms in faded black ink, across the spines of books in Times New Roman. They live larger than life on countless posters, and life-sized in tiny labeled jars.

Needless to say, Corrie Moreau is a fan of ants. She is also a world-leading expert on them— she holds a PhD in biology, earned under the guidance of legendary evolutionist E.O. Wilson. Her current institution is the Field Museum, where she runs an entomology lab and heads the museum’s women in science program. Her lab does research in many areas, all ant-related, but also focuses on supporting the next generation of scientists through various internships and opportunities.

Moreau created the Field Museum’s women in science website in 2011 with no prior clearance from any supervisors; for a while the women in science program existed only between Moreau and the IT department. From there, it has snowballed into one of the museum’s most active communities, offering many internships for high school and undergraduate girls, hosting monthly seminars and yearly symposiums.

“It’s a really fun way to sort of make sure that girls are seeing that careers in science are viable options, and that there are lots of ways of being a scientist,” Moreau says. “That it’s not just a university professor or somebody in a lab.”

Moreau doesn’t fit into any aspect of that outdated “somebody in a lab” stereotype. She’s bubbly, down-to-earth, and tattooed from wrists to shoulders. She grew up in New Orleans, raised by two blue-collar parents. Insects turned out to be the most accessible form of wildlife to the curious 8-year-old Moreau.

“I spent many years as a kid collecting spiders in jars, looking at ants on the sidewalk, anything I could find,” Moreau says with a smile. “Unlike finding a really pretty beetle, with ants, you find one and you’re gonna find the rest of the colony. Even as a kid you could do simple experiments, like put cookie crumbs out and see how many would come to it.”

Today, she has come a long way from leaving cookie crumbs on a sidewalk. Moreau worked towards her undergraduate degree at the University of San Francisco, where she studied alongside many influential professors whom she says helped inspire her to continue her education.

After a master’s degree in collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences, Moreau was off to Harvard to study under E.O. Wilson, even if she didn’t know it yet.

The moment Moreau got the email from Ed, as she affectionately calls him, was a pivotal moment in her career. She wasn’t even aware she had been accepted to Harvard when she received the email from Wilson offering to be her mentor and urging her to consider Harvard.

“Who’s gonna say no to that?” she asks with a laugh. “I remember almost falling out of my chair reading this email.”

She took Wilson’s advice, and he coached her through a PhD and on to her current position at the Field Museum.

One of the upsides of Moreau’s current gig? Travel. On average, Moreau spends a cumulative three months out of the year in the field, and this year is especially jam packed. Over the summer she’ll be visiting five continents in under three months collecting and studying her favorite species of ant (yes, she has a favorite): turtle ants.

Her eyes light up when she talks about them— her beloved turtle ants. She describes the way that the soldier ants fit their bizarrely Reese’s cup-shaped heads perfectly into the entrances to their colonies, gesturing enthusiastically and using several posters on her walls as references.

When she’s in office at the museum, her day-to-day routine is… well, not a routine at all. Some days she sits in her office, replying to emails and setting up appointments, other days she’s constantly on the move, meeting with students, dissecting new specimen, and jaunting from lab to lab.

“On those days when I do dissections I can’t have coffee,” she says. “And I am a coffee fanatic. That means I’m very grumpy on dissection days.”

The reason for the coffee ban is because of the shake it can cause in your hands, a shake that is far too destructive when you’re dissecting a .5 centimeter ant with watch forceps.

Believe it or not, dissecting the gut bacteria of turtle ants is not the most nuanced part of her job. That comes with the territory of dealing with people, which Moreau does plenty of through her role as a mentor and creator of the women in science program.

Jessica Ware, a fellow biologist and a current professor at Rutgers, met Moreau through mutual work when she was in graduate school. She remembers being star struck when she first met Moreau, and continues to admire the “infectious enthusiasm” and unique approach she takes to her science.

“I think she’s been a really strong voice and advocate for women in science,” Ware says, rather proudly. “[It’s] an undercurrent to everything she does, including her research. She encourages a diversity of approaches, a diversity of opinions. It’s wonderful.”

People are something that Moreau is very passionate about. As Ware says, she advocates strongly for diversity in the STEM fields, both in terms of women and people of color. She practices diverse hiring in her own labs, and meets with every single employee in her labs at least once a week to stay connected and up-to-date on their discoveries.

“It’s that moment where they accomplish something really big, and watching their faces light up. Just seeing that joy when they discover something on their own,” Moreau says. “It’s really a rewarding part of my job.”

With the sun hanging low in the sky, Moreau departs from her ant-dominated office to head to the lab. It’s at this point that she runs into one of her students in the hallway, a fresh-faced girl looking for her once-a-week meeting, and everything else can wait— the sample, the emails, the turtle ants. All of that is irrelevant as she waits for this girl’s face to light up with discovery.

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Badass Scientists, Part 1: Emily Graslie

It’s not often that college YouTubers receive a helping hand from a celebrity— but that’s exactly what happened to Emily Graslie to launch her YouTube career into the stratosphere.

The Brain Scoop, Graslie’s channel, is a science-based channel that releases videos on behalf of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, detailing its collections and projects.

Before she launched the Brain Scoop, Graslie studied studio art at the University of Montana and interning at the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum. During her time at the museum, Hank Green, creator of the VlogBrothers YouTube channel and brother of author John Green, came to visit. Graslie guest-starred in his video about the museum’s collections, and from that day forward it was a whirlwind.

“We recorded that VlogBrothers video on a Wednesday, it went up on Friday, and by Monday he had emailed me being like, ‘Do you just wanna have your own channel?'” Graslie said. “One day I was just a volunteer in a small little museum who had a couple hundred followers on my blog, and the next day a quarter of a million people knew my name.”

And so the Brain Scoop was born. From museum collections to sexism in the STEM fields, there is no topic Graslie is afraid to cover. As the channel gained traction, rocketing to over 300,000 subscribers, Graslie found a home for herself and her channel at the Field Museum. ”

The Field Museum had been looking to expand their digital initiatives, and wanted a new, novel way to increase their impact and their reach,” Graslie said. “So they created their position for me, and here I am.”

Her official title at the museum is Chief Curiosity Correspondent— a title pitched by one of her peers that ended up sticking, she said. As the Chief Curiosity Correspondent, Graslie’s job is to communicate the research and collections of the Field Museum to the public.

Her crew consists of herself and a cameraman, and from her office in a botany lab she handles the creative, productive, writing, and advertising behind every episode of the Brain Scoop.

“There are a lot of visiting researchers who don’t know that I’m not a botanist, so they come in wanting primers for their genetic strings and I’m like, ‘Man, I got Play-Doh, I don’t have anything, sorry about that,'” Graslie laughs. “I need a lock on my door.”

Due to her small crew and relative creative license, Graslie gets to work very closely with many other departments within the Field Museum. Often her videos feature experts from the museum featured in her videos to talk about their work.

“I have a lot of freedom, but I also have all of these different departments and areas in mind and I have to make sure that I’m meeting priorities across them,” Graslie said. “I tell people I have 1 boss but I also have 500 bosses, because I’m working collaboratively with everybody in research and collections.”

Because she represents an institution, Graslie said she had struggled with the ethics behind funding and corporate endorsements.

“The Brain Scoop functions really differently than any other YouTube channel because I am housed at an institution, so I have all these other institutional priorities,” Graslie said. “I’m not just an independent person who can just take an endorsement for one thing, not considering the implications of that endorsement.”

Graslie uses the example of an airline wanting to sponsor the Brain Scoop— could she accept that, given the environmental damage airlines cause? So far, funds have been raised from anonymous family donors to the Field Museum.

However the channel finds its funding, Graslie said nothing matters more than the feedback she gets from her audience.

“How do you measure the impact that this show will have on the 5-year-old girl who watches every video six times a day and writes me handwritten notes about how she helped her teacher pronounce the word ‘capybara,’ and she learned it from the Brain Scoop?” Graslie asked.

Graslie is also trying to inspire young women get into STEM fields. Right now, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women hold less than 20 percent of STEM jobs. In 2013, Graslie was receiving so much negativity surrounding her appearance and her gender as a science communicator that she made a video addressing it.

“I want [my work] to be recognized, I want the content to be recognized, I want anything to be recognized other than what I’m wearing or how I look,” Graslie said.

Despite the battles with funding and industry sexism, Graslie said she is inspired by her colleagues and that she loves her work at the Field Museum.

“It makes me so happy to go out and to see a bird and to know what that bird is, to know what the insides of that bird look like, and to know the life cycle of that bird, and how that bird evolved, and how it ever came to be flying, and the unlikelihood of flight mechanics,” Graslie said. “It just gets me out of bed in the morning.”